The War on Christmas: Part 94

The annual hysteria is manufactured and unnecessary and needs to stop.

Well, it's that time of year again. The mother of all manufactured controversies. It's the War on Christmas!

Once again, Christians are lashing out at secularists and the non-religious under the pretence that Christmas is under attack. In the United States, there is renewed controversy over billboards and bus ads carrying atheist messages.

The Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed the posters were designed only "to offend people who enjoy Christmas". So what are the messages that are causing such dire offence during this holiest of seasons? "Millions of people are good without God", "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" and "You know it's a myth. This year, celebrate reason!".

Can someone explain how encouraging people to be intellectually honest about their beliefs is offensive?

These posters and slogans are not designed to convert believers into non-believers. Even the most controversial slogan ("You know it's a myth") is clearly aimed at people who already think that way. It is a means of encouraging non-believers to be public about who they are and what they do or do not believe. Is that so dangerous?

Why is it OK in the US and in Britain to plaster Christian slogans and posters everywhere, but when secular causes do the same it is "an attack" on Christianity and on Christmas? It seems to happen all the time.

Remember when the "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogans appeared on buses and billboards in 2008. Or, the example that won't seem to go away, that Birmingham City Council once had a winter marketing campaign that it called "Winterval". There are always these types of stories in the news, and they are totally manufactured and utterly unnecessary.

In contrast to these "attacks", there is the Christian side of the argument. I see a poster at a bus stop every morning on the way in to work which depicts an image of a child in the womb with a halo around its head. The poster reads "Christmas starts with Christ". Is that not the same thing that these atheist posters are doing, but for Christianity? Of course it is. Yet, where is the controversy? I have seen nobody complain about these posters and have seen no news stories about them causing offence. Christian preaching is apparently fine, whereas atheists are held to a much harsher standard because people don't like what they're saying.

As an atheist, I could find the poster very annoying, mostly because the only way in which Christmas starts with Christ is in the word. The celebration itself pre-dates Christianity by a great many years. Stories were being told of gods being born as men on 25 December to a virgin mother for centuries before Jesus was ever reported to have lived. Christmas the celebration does not start with Christ. Christianity hijacked 25 December from paganism in order to make conversion easier. After all, if you still celebrate on the same day, what difference does it make?

Despite that, though, I am not going to demand that the poster be taken down, or claim that secular society is "under attack", or anything like that. That is because the person or organisation that commissioned the poster was well within its rights to do so. Just like atheist groups have the right to encourage people to be honest about their non-belief. It is not an attack. It never is.

The "War on Christmas" rhetoric has become a perpetual-motion machine of modern journalism. Every year, reactionary journalists will howl about some "PC" measure that is waging war on Christmas, and not-so-reactionary journalists will have to take their time to debunk the claims.

I appreciate the irony that, by writing this piece, I have become a cog in the perpetual "War on Christmas" machine, but it really does need to stop. There is no war on Christmas. Let people put up posters expressing their beliefs, and let people celebrate the season however they choose. I, for one, will be indulging my Christmas tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear